Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy Holidays

Holiday time is challenging... we try to do too much in too little time, we want each moment to be perfect, and we want desperately to sleep and just to enjoy ourselves. I try not to get bogged down in the hubbub but to do the things that are important. This is why I no longer try to make Christmas cookies. This balance isn't always perfect, but I do my best.

To that end, this blog has gone by the wayside this past bit. It's not that I haven't thought of you, dear readers, but that I prefer to prioritize recovering from the stomach flu, wrapping presents, cuddling my family or actually cooking at any given moment. Last night, I preferred not to care why my internet connection wasn't working, once I discovered Darling Husband working on the problem. Ah, I thought, well, he's already fixed our hot water heater this week, surely I can fall asleep sure in the knowledge that all will be well.

And all was well. This is the kind of security I love in the parent/child relationship. It's not a child's job to worry about bills or the security (emotional or otherwise) of his parents, home or family. I'm blessed to have parents who not only realized that but were in a position to make that true. I hope to do the same for Baby Girl. I'm lucky to have a husband in whom I can put blind faith in like that from time to time, too, when being a grown up is not high on the priority list.

Here are some blog posts I've contemplated: how my daughter hates my quiche but loves my mother's, despite the fact that I make it as close to hers as I know how. Our Christmas Eve dinner, which we made for Darling Husband's family. My awesome culinary Christmas present from Darling Husband and the things I've made on it. Tonight's gumbo.

I might get to some of these in the future. I might also have other stuff to write about, and will forget about them. Either way, darling readers, I haven't forgotten about you. I'm just enjoying my holidays, enjoying being a stay-at-home mommy for a week, enjoying readjusting the pace of my world a bit, enjoying watching the snow fall and not caring too much about the roads. Be well, be safe, and if I don't see you, Happy New Year. May it bring us all peace, joy, health and happiness-- and a good meal or two. :o)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thai food, baby!

Okay, so many of you know my very favorite take-out food is Thai. (And my very favorite Thai restaurant is Thai Cuisine in Bloomfield, a cute neighborhood in Pittsburgh.) If you live in Erie you know there is no Thai food to speak of (there used to be Thai fusion at PaperMoon, but that didn't count and besides, they're closed--more's the pity). And that was sad...

...UNTIL NOW!

Located on North Park Row, right next to Catfish Kitchen and just a bit West of Bertrand's, Khao Thai is now open! I think they've been open a couple of weeks now. They have a small eat-in area which is nice and reminds me of a cross between a diner and ethnic food eatery (actually, it reminds me of this little family Greek food place near the Steeler's stadium that caters to the Steeler's croud and so serves spanikopita and also burgers, gyros and a breakfast buffet).

We opted to take-out, as it fits in better with Baby Girl's disposition and schedule. There were 54 items to choose from, including a kid's menu, I should mention. Baby girl didn't partake, but they offer grilled chicken over fried rice, honey marinated flank steak and also rice noodles stir fried with egg in a sweetened soy sauce. It's nice to see a kid's menu in a place like this, although I couldn't tell you if it was any good.

We had poh tak (seafood soup) which had gigantic muscles, scallops, shrimp and calamari in a lemongrass and lime broth. It was very flavorful, with shards of ginger and thai basil leaves. As a soup, though, it was a bit of a challenge, as the broth was so forthright we couldn't have much of it.

We then had bangkok beef, which was highly fragranced slices of flank steak, pan fried and topped with raw ginger. It was melty tender and wonderful, served with pickled vegetables that set off the flavors wonderfully. They reminded us of the pickled ginger you get with sushi.

Finally, we had drunken noodles. I'm not sure what was drunken about them (the menu didn't say) but they were lovely. Big fat rice noodles with basil leaves, onions, a little tomato and a lot of flavor. It was comfort food in anyone's language.

The food was very nice and the service fine, although we ordered a large soup and got a small. That being said, considering the small, we didn't want the large. It wasn't the mind-altering, life-changing experience I'd built it up to be in my head, but it was a very nice meal and I anticipate many more as we work our way through the menu. Give it a try!

Here's the scoop:

Khao Thai Restauraunt
36 North Park Row

454-4069
fax: 454-4096

Free delivery within 3 miles with a $15 minimum purchase

Open Monday through Saturday, 11am until 10pm.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Poshy Mac

Darling Husband created comfort food of the Gods tonight. I was feeling a little funny and under the weather, so he whipped up homemade gourmet mac and cheese. He used cellentani noodles (big spiral tubes) and a made-from-scratch bechamel with cheddar and grueyere cheeses. To top it off, he put cornflakes and more cheese. The best part, though, was the lardons of pancetta. It was goey, crunchy, chewy and wonderful and just right for this blizzardy day. Thank you, honeybear!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Okay, readers...

My loving mother bought a new fridge after her old one gave up the ghost at age 15ish. Her new fridge is fantastic and I'm quite jealous. It's one drawback is that it's smaller, capacity-wise, than her old one.

But out of adversity comes presents for me! I went home with a bag of frozen foods and a bag of fresh goodies.

Now, here's the challenge: what can we make?

Here are the ingredients:

  • Fresh kale
  • Swiss cheese
  • Provolone
  • Fresh pasta sheets (frozen)
  • Puff pastry shells
  • Puff pastry sheets
  • Parsnips
  • Frozen edemame
  • Frozen bell pepper strips
  • A whole zucchini
  • A whole eggplant
  • Walnuts
  • Limes

Dear readers, what might you make? I'm not envisioning one meal containing everything, but Darling Husband and I are brainstorming possibilities. Post your ideas! If we make them, I'll post pictures. :o)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cheddar that can almost drive

Did you hear about this? NPR and others ran stories about this aged cheddar (15 years old!)which is selling for $50 a pound. If you haven't read about it, please check it out; the gist is this small cheesery (my word) let more than a thousand pounds of cheddar age beyond anyone's rational expectation and is selling it.

I loved hearing this story, but I wish they had found someone other than this man--the owner of Hooks Cheese Company--o interview. I have nothing against Mr Hooks (aka Mr Cheese), but he's obviously the guy in charge and not the master cheesemeister. If he was, he would be able to make attempts to describe the cheese.

Mr Hooks asserts that the cheese is not bitter, not acidic, has no off flavors but is very flavorful. In one interview, he says it has more of a cheddar flavor. In another, he says it has lost the acidic cheddar flavor. Well, I'm confused.

If you're selling it for $50 a pound, you must be able to justify that amount. Perhaps there are enough cheese aficionados to buy up all 1,200 pounds of it (that's $60,000 worth of cheese). I realize his NPR interview wasn't meant to be a sales pitch. Describing the taste of food isn't exactly easy, particularly if it is unusual. But listen to vintners or those who brew beer. There's a whole language to it. I refuse to believe that you can age a cheese for 15 years and only be able to describe it in the negative.

Compare his blah description (or non-description) to that of the Francis Ford Coppola Winery's description of their Sophia Blanc de Blancs: Delicately fruity and delightfully refreshing, Sofia Blanc de Blancs is a rare blend of Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat. The crisp flavors of apples and pears are made brighter by a hint of citrus and honeysuckle. Elegant in character, this wine is lightly textured and vibrant through the finish.

Or, to Samuel Adams Boston Lager, described by their company as: Full bodied and complex. Carmel sweet balanced with distinct citrus and piney notes. A strong, smooth finish and mouthfeel.

Perhaps Mr Hooks should take a note from the Wisconsin Cheese website, by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. They, in fact, feature him and his wife, Julia, and note that they have been making cheese for 35 years. Perhaps he's not just the owner. Maybe he's just not well spoken in interviews. However, Wisconsin Cheese describes cheddar as follows: As Cheddar ages, its texture, flavor and performance change: Mild Cheddar has a firm, elastic texture. It slices, shreds and melts well. Medium Cheddar has a texture that is slightly creamier than mild, with a fuller Cheddar flavor often described as brothy. It slices, shreds, melts and blends well into sauces. Aged Cheddar has a texture both crumbly and creamy, with a flavor often described as beefy. It shreds and melts well.

It's possible (although, to be honest, I feel I'm bending over backwards at this point) that Mr Hooks was just employing words that have meaning in the industry and in common vernacular. The same Wisconsin Cheese site has a glossary of cheese terms. In it, bitter is described as "a sensation that is typified by the aftertaste of grapefruit peel". Acidic is "A descriptive term for cheese with a pleasant tang and sourish flavor due to a concentration of acid. By contrast, a cheese with a sharp or biting, sour taste indicates an excessive concentration of acid which is a defect." Indeed, even his negation of off flavors has some merit, as "off" is defined as "A term referring to undesirable flavors or odors too faint or ill-defined to be more precisely characterized." So, Mr Hooks was saying his cheese ISN'T these things.

The argument falls apart, however, when we look up "flavorful." I did find "flavor," which is described as follows: A general term for the taste cheese presents as it is eaten. Flavor is detected in the mouth and also by the nose. Flavors, in order of ascending aggressiveness, are described as faint (fleeting), mild (light or bland), pronounced (distinct) or strong (intense). Flavors may also be described by the tastes they resemble, such as nutty, salty, buttery, fruity and peppery. Flavor is categorized by initial tastes as well as by aftertastes.

SEE, Mr Hooks? So many words to choose from!

To be fair, The Hooks Cheese Company website has some description of the cheese. Starting with the 1 year old cheddar (A colored cheddar that has a nice flavor, a little sharper than our medium cheddar. This is what most stores would call a sharp cheddar,) it progresses:

Hook's Two Year Sharp Cheddar A white cheddar that is a little sharper than our one year cheddar.

Hook's Three Year Sharp Cheddar A colored cheddar that is starting to show the nice acidic sharpness with a good cheddar flavor.

Hook's Four Year Sharp Cheddar A white cheddar with a nice, sharp cheddary flavor.

Hook's Five Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp cheddar with a nice, full flavor.

Hook's Six Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp white cheddar with a nice full cheddar flavor.

Hook's Seven Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp cheddar with some calcium (calcium lactate) crystals that add a little crunch. This cheddar has a lot of flavor and is a little smoother than the Five Year.

Hook's Eight Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp white cheddar with a lot of flavor.

Hook's Ten Year Sharp Cheddar Our 10 year cheddar won 1st place at the 2006 American Cheese Society Show, the only 10 year cheddar to get a 1st place in this, or any competition. It has more calcium crystals than our 7 year cheddar. It has a full, rich cheddar flavor and a smooth finish.

Hook's Twelve Year Sharp Cheddar Our 12 year colored cheddar has a lot of calcium crystals and a great, rich cheddar flavor.

... Look, I appreciate the attempt, and there's probably a subtle difference between years, but years 5, 6 and 8 pretty much said the same thing.

I have no doubt that this is a fantastic cheese, and even worth it's price tag. After all, whether or not something is worth the money is usually determined by whether or not people will pay it. Certainly there are those who would buy it for the novelty, or for the snobbery, or for the curiosity. I guess I'm disappointed that the interviewers never pressed the point that is begging to be pressed: what does a 15 year old cheese taste like? For me, $50 better buy me a lot more than not bitter or off tasting.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Meatless Beatle

This one's for you, Sir Paul.

Sir Paul McCartney has asked the European Union to consider adopting Meatless Mondays. Al Gore, climate change experts and other environmentalists are also urging people to eschew meat once a week. Why? According to its proponents, a reduction of meat consumption can positively affect greenhouse gas production, river and stream pollution, water consumption, and dependence on fossil fuels. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called eating less meat "one of the most important personal choices we can make to address climate change."

The push to eat locally produced foods (thereby cutting down on gas consumption and emissions) is good for the environment and also the local community. We like to support local businesses when we can. For two years, we tried to belong to a CSA, but it failed two years in a row. The first year, there wasn't enough interest. The second year, there weren't enough crops. Maybe we need to pick another farm, although Farmer Troy seems like a very agreeable fellow.

This newer twist, to eat local, sustainable plant based products, goes that much further. Sir Paul and others want governments to be the ones to take the bull by the horns to reduce consumption. So far, Baltimore, MD public schools are on board, as is Covington, KY. Globally, it's picking up popularity in Canada, Brazil, Belgium, Taiwan, Finland and Tel Aviv, Israel. Exactly what each of these places is doing for the movement, I'm not sure, but they all seem to support it.

Changing one's personal eating habits for the sake of the greater good is not a new idea. Meatless Monday, in fact, is a term from WWI when our government encouraged us to do our part to help the war effort. It seems generations before mine were much more willing to give things up for a cause. I think we were less cynical about government then, in those pre-nixon days. What do I know about it, though? I'm only 30.

Darling Husband and I didn't actually discuss joining in with Meatless Mondays, and I'm not sure we've officially decided to do this. It just so happened that Monday's dinner was meatless. It was not, however, entirely vegetarian and certainly wasn't vegan. It could've been, but we weren't thinking about the connection until the very end. Sorry, Sir Paul.

My mother bought too much baby bok choy, and so gifted some to us. We chopped it into 1 inch pieces (it was remarkably teenaged for being termed "baby"-- much larger than I expected it to be. Many baby bok choy are the size of your palm. These were 3x as large, but still significantly smaller than traditional bok choy) and stir fried it with matchstick carrots, bamboo shoots, baby corn and scallions. Darling Husband was in charge of tofu and sauce. For the tofu, he first pressed much of the liquid out of it using a cutting board and a jug of cider for weight. Then he cut it into somewhat flat squares and fried it, getting a nice, crispy texture and producing tofu that didn't fall apart when stirred into the dish. For the sauce, he used sambol olek, oyster sauce, sugar and black vinegar. I made rice, flavoring it with a few dashes of ground cayenne and a couple of frozen cubes of turkey stock.

The turkey stock and the oyster sauce negates the vegetarian idea. The imported vinegar, sambol olek, oyster sauce and non-local corn and bok choy blew the whole reduction of fossil fuels thing out of the water. Sorry, Sir Paul. We'll plan ahead next time. In the spirit of cutting back on our meat consumption, both in terms of buying meat (we had considered pork for the dish) and consuming meat (health benefits), we did seem to do that. So I think it's a move in the right direction, as far as Meatless Mondays is concerned.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pass the pudding

Problem: One large ziplock bag containing about a dozen small dinner rolls, given to us as leftovers by loving family.

Solution: Savory bread pudding. Or stuffing. Or, if you prefer, chunky strata.

What's the difference between these things? There isn't much of one. When you take bread, bind it with egg and milk, mix in some veggies or other items, then bake it... well, pretty much you've described each of them. Strata tends to be more slices of bread supersaturated with scrambled egg mix, then baked and sliced. Stuffing tends to be a bit dryer, and made with hunks or cubes. (I am, by the way, calling a dish "stuffing" that probably should be called "dressing," as it's never quite stuffed into anything. But it could be. Poultry, acorn squash, pork, the list goes on.) The British, by the way, would call all of these "puddings." They're very liberal with the word, whereas Americans get a bit touchy about it.

Our dish involved a bit of sage stuffing left over in the freezer. It went into the pan straight from the freezer, the way I remember my mother doing with ground beef. Perhaps food scientists would tell us not to do this (who knows?) but it's kinda fun to flip the frozen block, scrape off the cooked and defrosted part with your wooden spoon, wait a moment or two, then flip it back and repeat on the other side. It certainly makes for a fine crumble, which worked well for this use.

I tossed the cubed rolls into the drippings from the sausage, having first turned off the heat. Then I added in some craisins, golden raisins, leftover corn kernels (I was just scanning the fridge at this point) and cut up some leftover sweet potato fries. It looked very lovely and colorful in the pan. To bind, I stirred in two eggs which had been beaten with a bit of milk, pepper and herb seasoning mix. It was an odd amount for any pan I could think of, so I improvised a vessel out of foil and set it inside my big lasagna pan to bake.

The finished product was a bit crumbly--I might've used more egg mixture, which would've made more of a cohesive dish. Flavor wise, though, I can't complain. The sausage added a nice complexity and permeated the bread with that yummy comes-from-grease-but-not-greasy flavor, while the dried fruit was like punches of color on the palate. Craisins, particularly, are both tart and sweet and so do double duty. The sweet potato fries had started off creamy soft and caramelized, and became even more so. They were the softest part of the dish. Darling Husband and I felt the corn, however, was the surprise hit of the day.

I am a fan of such "puddings" and recommend making them with various combinations of ingredients. Cornbread? Yum! Chestnuts? Yum! Grated zucchini? Yum! Cubed squash? Yum! The list goes on and on.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Panini power

What do you get when you put brie, arrugula, pastrami and creamy artichoke spread on soft Italian bread and toast it on your George Foreman grill? A really kickin' panini with an ecclectic flavor profile which, never the less, works. The brie became melty and gooey but retained what Darling Husband lovingly calls "brie funk," and was a fantastic cement for the sandwich. Pastram was another of Darling Husband's ideas. I had suggested roast beef, but the salty cure and smoke that is pastrami worked surprisingly well in the sandwich.

We served with butternut squash soup from a container. It was much, much thinner than our home made and had a lot of stock flavor. That being said, it was more refreshing, too. In the future I might add a bit of hot sauce or 5 spice powder to the soup.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My ingredients, a photolog



Castlevetrano olives



When I smashed them to remove the pits, I found I was making olive oil on my board. And yes, the most virgin of the oils tasted awesome.



Red snapper










Skinning the fillet, exposing beautiful grain










Sour dough.
Persimmon. Raw, it was a bit sweet but had a strangely coating taste in the mouth. We later learned this was from the tannins. Cooked down and blended, the tannins rendered the whole thing tongue scrapingly bad. I had to throw it out. According to wikipedia, our persimmon must have been unripe.







Tomato juice








Reducing the juice to come closer to a sauce.


The finished product, to be more fully explained at a later date. Crusted snapper over tortelini, coated in a bloody mary marinara, with sourdough toasts.

The weekend's winning dishes

Having gone to three separate Thanksgiving dinners, and traveled four hours to do so, Darling Husband and I got to talking and have compiled our "best of" list for the holiday.

Best Turkey:
My parents. It was moist and flavorful, with lovely white and dark meat. An all around nice bird--nothing fancy, but well seasoned and cooked just right.

Best Stuffing:
Darling Husband's paternal grandmother. Cooked in the bird and, therefore, wonderfully moist with the drippings from the turkey. I think we both got a touch of food poisoning from it, but it was darkly worth it. The veggies in it were not raw, as can be a problem with onions and celery in stuffing. It was the stuffing all stuffings wish they could be, and food scientists warn us about.

Best Potatoes:
My parents. Flavorful, creamy, dreamy. Just right as a vehicle for gravy or a foundation for a forkful of everything.

Best Pie:
Darling Husband's paternal grandmother. She says she'd rather bake than cook. God bless her, she's like my sister in that. It serves her well, though, as her pie was fantastic (even though she forgot the whipped cream). It wasn't glutenous or gelatinous, as pumpkin pie can be, nor was it heavy. The custard was just right. Baby Girl ate a whole piece herself.

Best Gravy:
It's a tie between my parents and Darling Husband's maternal grandmother. Actually, I think his mom actually made the gravy, and that's where the problem came in. Our mothers both made gravy the way they make gravy, and therefore we both picked our own mother's gravy as the most exemplary. My mom's was thinner than his mom's, with more of the flavor of the bird. His mom's was thicker and more stick to your ribs, with a lovely consistency. [It's worth noting that the other Thanksgiving dinner's gravy was unusually made. The aunt who was in charge insisted on using water from the potatoes for thickening the gravy. To us, it was a miss for a number of reasons, and this might have been one of them. For one thing, it just never emulsified and seemed greasy. As Darling Husband pointed out, the starch in the water would have already been cooked and done it's thing. For another, it's adding quite a bit of extraneous liquid to cook out. I guess it's an interesting idea, but for that reason or perhaps not, the gravy wasn't a hit for us.]

Best Beta Carotine Veg (sweet potato or squash):
Darling Husband's maternal grandmother. Darling Husband's aunt and uncle brought a lovely hubbard squash dish with cranberries and just a hint of cinnamon. Hubbard squash is rather pumpkiny in taste and texture; it's more fibrous than acorn or butternut. The cranberries were a wonderful bright note.

Best Veggie (unspecified):
This one also was a tie. The first veg we loved was at Darling Husband's paternal grandmother. They make a corn casserole, which is probably a spoon bread of some kind. Mmmmh, it is so good. It has corn kernels and corn meal and sour cream and I don't know what else. It's sweet but not sugary, starchy but fluffy. It's addictive.

The second veg we loved was, actually, our own. We made brussel sprouts and brought them to Darling Husband's maternal grandmother's Thanksgiving. First, we trimmed and halved the brussel sprouts, tossing them in olive oil and seasoning with salt and pepper. Then we roasted them cut side down on a baking stone in a 415 degree oven. Meanwhile, we reduced some balsamic vinegar slightly (we've over reduced before and wound up with tar, so I was a bit gun shy and could have reduced further) and halved some dried figs. When the sprouts were out of the oven, we added the figs and a few handfuls of candied walnuts and tossed with the balsamic. Roasting them brings out the sweetness and mellows the harsh cabbage bitterness, plus adds a bit of carmelization and wonderful flavor. The balsamic was tart and sweet and rich with umami. And while figs and candied walnuts are sweet, the overall flavor of the dish has enough dark flavors that it's not overwhelmingly sweet at all.

Oh, and then there was my mother's green beans, which had grown in her garden and had a wonderful crispness... Hmmm. I guess we ate pretty well this weekend. Thank you to all our family for their hospitality, good food and generous love. We're thankful for you all.

Leftover treasure

Darling Husband, Baby Girl and I don't make Thanksgiving dinner. Instead, we travel to my parents and both sides of Darling Husband's family- that's THREE Thanksgivings. I used to think that when we had children we'd whittle that down, but it hasn't happened yet. We're too excited to see everyone and show off our little girl to cut one out. It has up sides and down sides. It also means that we don't get much in the way of left overs unless someone packs them up and gives them to us. (I know someone who roasts their own turkey expressly for leftovers, though they eat dinner at a relative's house. I think that's overkill, myself.)

That being said, I've come up with a list of left over gems for you, my dear reader, to stave off hum drum turkey sandwich blahs.

Turkey:
  • Gumbo
  • Turkey Waldorf salad
  • Hash
  • Panini sandwiches
  • Cheddar tortilla soup
  • Fajitas
  • Pot pie
  • Chef salad

Potatoes:
  • Potato pancakes
  • Potato cakes
  • Shepherd's pie
  • Gnocci
  • Perogi filling
  • Potato soup (possibly with bacon and/or leeks)

Cranberry sauce:
  • Reduced down as a glaze for pork tenderloin
  • On baguette with brie

Stuffing:
  • Okay, if you made good stuffing, you wouldn't have any leftovers.

Rolls:
  • Breakfast strata
  • Savory bread pudding
  • Sweet bread pudding
  • Garlic croutons
  • Fresh breadcrumbs

This year, the only leftovers we're expecting is some home made turkey stock. I plan to freeze it in ice cube trays, then use it to make risotto or to flavor rice.

Hope this list helps! Feel free to add comments of your own ingenious ideas for left over turkey day fixins.

Friday, November 27, 2009

I give a fig

Figs are lovely and terribly underused. Fresh figs are pricey and hard to find at times, but they've available dried all the time. I think many people are afraid of figs, unless it's in a fig newton. The seeds inside are crunchy in a sparkly way; it's delightful.

What could be a simpler appetizer than a dried fig, split and stuffed with blue cheese? Salty, sweet, creamy, crunchy and just bite sized.

Tonight we made a quick, savory tart topped with sauteed onions which were deglazed with balsamic vinegar, asiago cheese, quartered figs, mozzarella and torn prosciutto. Along with a simple salad, it was just the thing to cap off black Friday.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

My magic 5

Darling Husband gave me the following ingredients, from which I am to make a yummy meal:


Sourdough bread
Red snapper fillet
Castelvetrano olives
Persimmon
Tomato juice


Initial impressions: hmmmm, interesting! And eww! I don't like to drink tomato juice, but I know it will be workable. Sourdough is not something I enjoy, but surely the flavor can be masked. Red snapper sounds rockin'. Green olives, which Darling Husband assures me are not very brined or aged... I'm intrigued. Persimmons are beautiful and I have no idea what they're like. Sweet? Tart? Full of pips? You got me; we'll find out.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Beaujolais nouveau est arrive!

Each year, on the third Thursday in November, the wine and spirit stores release the year's beaujolais nouveau for sale. Ah, and what a day it is! My parents have taken to celebrating with a cocktail party (serving, obviously, only beaujolais nouveau).

This is a wine meant to be drunk immediately, as a celebration of the harvest. It is young, immature, and frankly will not be the best wine you drink. Some years it's awesome (two years ago, in fact, was a phenomenal year) and others, a bit "eh" (like last year). For me, that adds to the charm. It may be vin ordinaire, but that doesn't mean it's bad. Apparently some people see this as the wine of Thanksgiving, although it honestly never occured to me to connect the two.

One should drink the beaujoulais nouveau before the next year's harvest, although in our house it's never lasted that long. Darling Husband has just reminded me that we gave away our last bottle of last year's wine this August, which I suppose is breaking that rule. Honestly, though, it was hiding behind some marechal foch and I found it in the wine rack and we were running late and it's not polite to show up empty handed and anyway it was a relatively informal picnic and...

Yes. Well. It's to be drunk by spring. Moving on.

My mother served "heavy hors d'oerves," which I think is a way for her to serve buffet style and not worry that people are leaving hungry. She still worried. She shouldn't have.

Here are some of lovely foods on which we nibbled:

*Shrimp with cocktail sauce
*Assorted fresh veggies
*Home made hummus
*Rice, cheese and spinach bake
*Assorted French cheeses (God bless runny cheeses...)
*Jalapeno poppers
*Mini corn dogs
*Ham, turkey and cheese with rolls, to make tiny sandwiches
*Olives

I just might be forgetting something, but the dozen or so of us there munched and quaffed and laughed quite contentedly. Baby Girl was with a sitter for the first time (as opposed to spending time with her grand parents or aunt) and did very well, but I wasn't willing to let it go more than an hour and a half. It's too bad, because the conversation was sparkling, the company relaxed and convivial, the food fun and satisfying and the wine very drinkable.

If you're going to snag a bottle, better be quick about it. It doesn't last long in stores and some unscrupulous wine sellers have been known to put aside a case of it for themselves and their friends. If you don't see it on the shelf, ask and it's possible they will "find" a bottle in the back after all. :o)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Meatloaf and charred food

Much as I'd like to pretend they aren't, the holidays are around the corner. Everyone's familiar with the new wife story of burning the first Thanksgiving dinner with the in laws or some such cliche, right? Well, tonight was the 30 year old, 5 years married version: the burning of the first meatloaf dinner.

What's that, you say? You've never made a meatloaf? As I believe I've mentioned, Darling Husband has bad meatloaf memories/associations (as well as barbecued ham, sloppy joe's and anything else that seems to have ketchup as a main ingredient). Therefore there will not be a night when I say, "What would you like for dinner?" and he says "MEATLOAF!" Nor is there likely to be a night where I say, "Would you like meatloaf or stir fry?" and have him pick the former. As such, I never made a meatloaf. It wasn't something my mom made often, so it wasn't something I missed or craved.

Still, I was inspired by my mom's meatloaf she made a couple months back and heartened by the fact that Darling Husband ate it with good graces. It didn't have the ketchup glaze he seemed convinced it would have, nor did it taste appreciably of the K word as a binder.

Tonight I made my first meatloaf. I used ground beef, crushed ritz crackers, a packet of onion soup seasoning (savvy readers will find this familiar), an egg, some "kickin' chicken" seasoning and white wine. I formed it into two small loaves and set them on top of a rack over a rimmed baking sheet, to allow maximum crust formation and minimize the loaf bathing in fat.

For side dishes, I cut some carrots into coins and put them in a sauce pan with some ginger ale and a bit of sambol olek to reduce and glaze. Also, I made wild rice pilaf.

Where does the charred food come in? The smoke filled house? The tears?

Right here, folks (minus the tears. We were more stoic this evening.) They say Lucifer was cast out of heaven for his pride, and for the same reason my side dishes turned into fiery infernos. I was so blasted proud of myself for prepping the whole meal in the 20 minutes I could reasonably spare between work and picking up Baby Girl from daycare that I let myself get cocky. I set the water to boil for the rice, popped the loaves in the oven and got the carrots heating just before taking Baby Girl up to bed. I asked Darling Husband to peek in at them when he was done reading stories to her.

The next thing I know, he's telling me that the pan for the water has boiled dry and begun to burn, and the carrots are a tarry, charred, carbon mess. Whoops. I guess my brilliant plan isn't so brilliant. Fortunately, the meatloaf was fine. Multi tasking doesn't work. Studies say that, and so does the news and yet still I believe I am the one person on earth who can competently juggle things and not get, ahem, burned.

On the plus side, I was able to re-make the rice and found some peas and edamame in the fridge. Dinner was saved. As for the meatloaf? Well, Darling Husband had seconds. I think that speaks for itself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Flashback--I forgot to say

Remember the cauliflower and potato gratin I kept meaning to make? When I finally did, it made so much we were eating it for every meal. I found a pretty cool way to use up the leftovers. I made it into soup by adding some chicken stock and a bit of milk and pureeing with my stick blender. A few crushed red pepper flakes and voila!

I know, I know, I keep saying I don't like soup and then I keep making soup. I guess it's just one of those things. I must be getting feeble in my old age. :o)

Challenge resolved

Darling Husband rose valiantly to the challenge I presented him. Namely, to create a meal using pepperjack cheese, a whole chicken, pomegranate, turnips and sweetened condensed milk.

I'm going to pause here to expound upon the ingredients. Whole chicken is daunting. Your first decision is whether to butcher it or roast it as-is, whereupon you'll have to butcher it to eat it (a slightly coarser but none less true way of saying "carve"). We are used to our chicken being butchered for us--or, at least, we are in this house. Mostly we buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts or breast tenders. This being the point of reference, facing an entire bird is a little like working from a 3-D model when you're used to a map.

Pomegranates, too, are a bit of a conundrum. There are multiple methods for extracting the seeds, which sit like tiny bombs packed tightly and vacuum sealed inside oddly styrofoam like sections. I generally slice off the top, crack it in half, then use my fingers to peel apart the membranes and gently massage out the jewel-like seeds. Other methods involve floating in water while you do it (the membrane hunks float, the seeds sink) or whacking the fruit with the back of a wooden spoon on the outside. Whichever method you use, you will still stain your hands with the juice. Hopefully you won't stain your shirt and counter, too. When you are finished, you are left with stunning little gems, resembling corn kernels but ruby red, that are tart and intensely flavorful. Each seed contains a relatively large pip. One generally eats them whole, but I find the pips get stuck in my teeth and crunch oddly. In other words, they carry baggage.

Turnips don't get a lot of love. Like rutabagas, brussel sprouts and parsnips, they are not fashionable and people aren't really sure what to do with them. Our grandmothers did, though, and we need to learn again. Turnips can be bitey and unapproachable in the way radishes are, but they can also be mellowed nicely. Darling Husband found a perfect way and turnips are destined to be a regular visitor to my kitchen. I also like the look of turnips. They remind me of buoys or those spacer things that hold up the ropes that set off lap lanes in pools. Did you know that turnip skin is actually white, but turns purpley where the sun hits it? In this way you can tell how much of your turnip was out of the ground when it was picked.

Sweetened condensed milk is tinned milk which has had much of the water removed and sugar added. As far as I know, it's used to make pie filings and other desserts. Certain parts of the world use it to sweeten coffee, and that sounds like a much better use to me.

Pepperjack cheese isn't all that odd or unusual or even unapproachable. It's just an oddity to mix with other stuff. Personally, I like it best cut into cubes and microwaved until just soft and stringy-oozy-goey, but not so far that it loses shape.

What did Darling Husband make with these ingredients? Well, the turnips he poached in mostly regular milk with a few tablespoons of the sweetened condensed milk, a bay leaf and a bit of allspice. I tried one cooked like this--heavenly, creamy, tasty, wonderful. From this he made a mash and added the cheese.

He cut the back bone out of the chicken and flattened it, then stuffed butter and rosemary under the skin. He seared the chicken skin side down, then finished roasting it in the oven. When it was done, he made a pan sauce out of more of the sweetened milk, some white wine and a bit of cornstarch to thicken.

Lastly, he created lardons out of pepper bacon, then wilted arugula into it and tossed with the pomegranate seeds. It was a beautiful side dish, all gem tones and poppy flavors.

The chicken turned out wonderfully moist and heavily perfumed from the rosemary. It was a bit daunting to serve; I ended up sectioning off the leg/thigh and then carving the breast off the ribcage. The sauce was rather thick, as it had cooled a bit, and also rather sweet. It had taken on a nutty component from somewhere and I kept looking for the nuts in it without realizing quite why.

I loved the greens, although the pip-conundrum was still there. Fortunately everything tasted like yummy bacon. :o) I delicately and discretely (I hope) removed a few of the pips from my mouth, but then gave up and just tried not to bite down too hard. Flavor wise, though, it was marvy and fab.

The turnips? Well, if he had stopped before the cheese I would be praising him to high heaven. As it was, though, I kept wishing the cheese wasn't there. It didn't exactly clash, and the textures weren't too dissimilar... I'm not sure exactly what it was, frankly.

All told, I think we learned some awesome things in this dish. Turnips are not scary and can be wonderfully prepared. Bacon and greens are fantastic. Chickens can be conquered!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chopped challenge again

Darling Husband has the following ingredients:

Turnips

A whole chicken

Pomegranate

Pepperjack cheese

Sweetened condensed milk.

Tonight was supposed to be the night he was cooking, but Baby Girl spiked a fever after her nap and we were subsequently occupied by reading many, many books at her request. At 15 months, she delights in setting us to tasks. She'll hand me a book (and of course she can recognize her favorites) and I'll read a bit. Sometimes I finish, sometimes she grabs it away and hands me a different one, sometimes she takes it from me and hands it to her daddy to finish reading. Tonight we amused ourselves by giving the characters in The Little Mermaid accents. King Triton had a French accent. Ariel was Cockney British. Ursula was Eastern European. Sabastian was Jamaican (as he was in the movie) and Prince Eric talked like William Shatner. We ad-libbed a bit and cracked ourselves up, which made Baby Girl laugh, which resulted in us reading The Little Mermaid 3 times before the evening was out.

When she was finally asleep, we had only the energy to pop frozen chicken patties in the oven. Darling Husband put wing sauce and blue cheese dressing on his, while mine had bbq sauce and shredded cheddar. We'll go fancy tomorrow night.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Spud dud

It all started out so promisingly. A passing reference on the Food Network to the properties of frozen foods, a mention of the poor freezing qualities of certain veggies, the suggestion of using this to advantage...

Science experiments look great on paper. In the lab, however, it's every person for herself.

I should explain.

Freezing foods preserves them, but sometimes at a price. Ice crystals are sharp and jagged and poke holes in cell walls, breaking down structure and releasing liquid. This is why strawberries, once thawed, will always be sort of limp. For cooked foods, this has already happened through another process so it's not noticeable.

Baked potatoes are great. Mashed potatoes are great. But what if you could create both at once without the time and hassle of making "twice baked"? (this is probably my favorite potato prep, btw)

If I take a raw potato, scrub it well, then freeze it solid...

then defrost it...

then bake it...

will I get a lovely outer crust and mashed inside? Will it be the perfect food?

Um, no. In the defrosting, the potato sheds copious amounts of much-needed moisture. For some reason, the moisture is dark brown and creepy. It soaks the paper towels and drips all over my counter before I get smart and put them in a tupperware. However, touching the spud reveals a truly squishy potato. Already it seems like mashed potato trapped like magic in the skin. I am hopeful.

The baking takes absurdly long and the results are, well, surprising. The potato is now exponentially harder and firmer than it was before cooking. It also tastes raw. It's like my oven was a time machine instead.

What exactly went wrong? I think it was the release of all that liquid, depriving the potato of the building blocks of steam. Next time, we'll try putting them straight from freezer to oven in the hopes that this combats some of the loss of fluids.

It was such a cool idea, but a good scientist admits and publishes defeats as well as successes. I formed a hypothesis, tested it, and found that it did not hold up in this experiment. Further tweaking required.

If any of you try this and it works, let me know what you did to get it...

Super quick, yummy soup

I'm not big on soup, as loyal readers will remember. Butternut squash, however, just screams to be made into creamy goodness to be slurped from a spoon.

I like to roast my squash with garlic, tossed in olive oil, in a nicely hot oven until soft. Adding salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and broth makes it soup. Voila. Milk may be added to enhance creaminess (always a plus) and proportions are flexible as the desired consistency nears. It's hearty and wonderfully fragrant. A bit of fresh sage, a sprinkle of chopped walnut, a few little pastas would each be nice variations, but I tend to like my pretty straight forward.

Sweet and sour pasta

I was very excited to try a recipe we picked up at Wegman's last weekend, because it is one of the few recipes that seemed truly new to me. It's not something I ever would've put together, it didn't even exactly make sense, and if I hadn't tasted it I probably would've turned my nose up at it.

The name they gave it escapes me (and I can't put my hand on the recipe card--sorry!) but it was designed for a slow cooker. I chose to make it all at once, but I think it did lack a certain marriage of flavor and textural surrender that 10 hours of cooking brings.

The recipe calls for chopped green cabbage, golden raisins, sausage, tomato paste, crushed tomato, red wine vinegar, red onion, a pinch of sugar and, of course, salt/pepper. Originally all of this was to be layered in the crock pot and let go, but I adapted it. First, I browned the sausage and removed it from the pan. Then I softened the onion and added the cabbage, cooking until it was all soft and had released moisture. I chopped the raisins and pureed them with some of the tomato liquid to accelerate the flavor release, then added to the pan with the rest of the ingredients. I allowed it all to simmer and bubble away for an hour or so, then served over pasta.

It was, indeed, both sweet and sour, as well as hearty and tasty. Generally, the idea of cabbage with tomato sauce is a bit distasteful to me, although I know there' s a tradition of it, a la stuffed cabbage leaves. In this recipe, it worked. As a slow cooker recipe, the cabbage was almost indistinguishable. In mine, it was a bit more to the fore front. The raisins were inspired, I feel, although I want to punch the recipe up with some more spice (we added it individually to portions and it really helped) and possibly fresh herbs and wine. Glad we tried it!

Baby quiche

Here's a quick breakfast...

I took pre-made pie crust (I buy the Wegman's kind. It comes rolled up, two individually wrapped crusts to a box) and cut rounds with the top of a drinking glass. I pushed the rounds gently into the cups of a muffin pan, so that it made a shallow bowl but maintained contact with the sides.

Next I tore slices of swiss cheese into 1"x1" squares and put one in each crust. On top of that, I put about a teaspoon worth of ham, pinched off a mound of deli sliced ham.

In a separate bowl, I beat a couple eggs with a bit of milk, then spooned about two tablespoons of the egg into each quiche cup. Into the oven it went!

In about a half hour, I had a dozen perfectly sized baby quiche. I liked how easy they were and yet how tasty, filling, and fancy looking. They were a hit with Darling Husband and Baby Girl, who had helped make them by virtue of being held on my hip the entire time. Who says you can't cook one handed? Not in my house! I can even crack eggs single handedly-- beat that! :o)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Great timing

The trick to making dinner appear in a reasonable amount of time is in the planning. Rachael Ray makes 30 minute meals work because she puts the water on to boil first, gets her aromatics chopped and into a pan, preps the rest of her veg and her protein and before you know it, it's all done. (It also helps that she has herbs and other things pre-washed and chopped. Oh, and that bevvy of professional cooking staff of food stylists doesn't hurt...) In this way she can make a multi course meal or two in just a half hour. It seems like a cooler trick than it really is. If I put a little thought into it, I can make the components of a dish come together fairly quickly.

I have watched people burn garlic because they were busy chopping onions. I have seen people do entree, side dish and salad in turn, start to finish. I have witnessed the workings of the kitchen grind to a halt, waiting for water to boil, while other tasks pile up behind like rush hour traffic. I have committed some of these offenses, too. Then, several years ago, I made a 14 course tasting menu for Darling Husband for Valentine's Day. I took the afternoon off of work to do it, and had planned each step down to the letter. I wrote each step out, then ordered them to be sure I didn't suddenly turn to cook a protein that should've gotten a spice rub 30 minutes ago. It was challenging but rewarding and taught me a lot about time management in the kitchen and being realistic about my abilities.

Studies have shown that people don't multi task well. We think we do, but in reality we give diminished attention to each task. I believe this, and yet I don't see how you can cook effectively without it. While my meat is searing, I'm cubing potatoes. While my asparagus are roasting and my catfish is marinating, I'm making the stove top stuffing. While my pasta is cooking, I'm tidying up the kitchen and putting away the leftover cabbage.

I love when the different components of a meal are all finished and waiting, the kitchen is tidyed up, the plates are out to serve, and I can just take a deep breath. The last bit is finishing up cooking and there's nothing to do until it does. It's a very calm moment.

My page a day "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" calender made this observation (paraphrased): our minds are like snow globes. When we rest and do nothing, we allow things to settle down. We are refreshed and ready to shake up the world again, resources renewed. I like the snow globe moments after the flurry of cooking and before the socialness of eating.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Accidently Atkins(ish)

Made dinner for 1 tonight, as Darling Husband was to get back late and I wasn't up to waiting until midnight to eat.


(Actually, I also made him dinner and made a separate dinner for tomorrow to be just warmed up, but just go with it.)


I decided to let convenience play a role and bought pre-marinated chicken breasts from Wegman's. They claimed to be brown sugar barbecue flavored, but certainly not with barbecue sauce. While I wouldn't have recognized it as such, it did taste very good. I seared it in a pan with a little olive oil over fairly low heat, allowing it to cook and do its thing without rushing it.

This is a new technique for me. Anyone who has gotten food poisoning can understand being a bit gunshy about chicken, and I'm no exception. My mother tends to cook chicken twice just to be sure she's really killing everything. Unfortunately, this can lead to dry, stringy chicken sometimes. And, really, that's not much more fun to eat than the poisoned kind.

This chicken, however, cooked slowly and gently, developed a nicely brown crust but retained all of its moisture. It was phenomenally lean, as well, which was fantastic. I'm a bit fanatical about chicken fat and gristle and I didn't have to reject one mouth full of this.

As an accompaniment, I cut up a Florida avocado. These are the larger, bright green avocados. Most people are familiar with the Haas (which are actually patented and, therefore, grown by grafts to prevent genetic mutation/alteration), but the Florida has a fresher, less intense taste. I would even say there's a watery component, but in a good way. It is less creamy but has a "green" or grassy taste, in a way. I like them. Wouldn't make a good guacamole, as it doesn't have the richness or mouthfeel, but is great sliced.

It also holds up better to bruising. Mine flew across my SUV as I narrowly avoided an accident with a semi truck, hitting my dash and windshield at 40 mph. I thought it would be all bruised to hell and unusable, but remarkably the slightly soft spot didn't turn the whole thing to unusable mush. Not bad!

Avocados, for anyone who is interested, never ripen on the tree. They only mature, but must be picked to ripen. Thus growers can literally store the fruit on the tree for about 7 months. What this does for the tree in a biological/botanical/evolutionary sense, I don't know. It does make it darned convenient, though. Oh, and also? "Avocado" is a European bastardization of the Aztec word for the same fruit. The Spanish thought it sounded much like their word for "lawyer," but the Aztecs word meant "testicle."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bowl full of comfort

Meals around here have been a bit bizarre lately, eaten at odd hours and sometimes clubbed together from strange sources. (Which is not to say bad, but maybe a little strange. We had meatballs in marinara over creamy polenta the other day, too. I love crock pot cooking.) That being said, I do have one meal I'd like to discuss.

Fall has arrived with a vengeance; snow even fell on Friday. This is cozy food weather! The other day I made spinach risotto with harvest compote on top.

The risotto was straight forward enough: toast the arborrio, grate in a couple cloves of garlic, add chicken stock gradually, stirring quite often, until rice is cooked but not mush. To this I added a generous amount of parmasan (we ran out of our hunk of parm so I had bought pre-grated shakey cheese instead. I added more to compensate for flavor loss). Just before serving, I wilted in a bunch of baby spinach.

Meanwhile, in another pan, I browned some sage sausage. I removed the sausage, but made sure to leave all the drippings in the pan. In this liquid yum I softened onion and garlic, and then began to cook diced butternut squash. To allow the squash to steam, I popped a lid on it and let it do its thing. The squash softened but didn't fall apart, but something was missing. I added the sausage back to the pan but was still not satisfied. It so happened that I had a surplus of stock in the risotto, so I scooped some out and put it in with the squash mixture. It was a perfect idea! The stock had a lot of the rice starch in it, so within a minute the squash had its own thick, rich gravy.

Darling Husband and I each got a bowl full of risotto with wilted spinach woven through, topped with goey, steamy squash and sausage. For added color and flavor punch, I tossed a handful of craisins and glazed walnuts on top. The flavors were well developed but not terribly complex. The walnuts were sweet and crunchy, the craisins tart and chewy, the squash and sausage very savory, the spinach slightly bitter and the risotto decadently creamy. It was stick to your ribs food and I, for one, adored it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Anniversary dinner at Mi Scuzi

For our 5th anniversary, Darling Husband and I decided to try Mi Scuzi, an Italian restaurant in a very unassuming location. It's a converted house near the corner of 26th and Myrtle Streets. Fortunately they have valet parking, as there's not much around. It's a residential area right near Saint Vincent hospital; I wonder where they put the cars. (As a side note, I enjoy handing a standard transmission over to a valet. It's silly, I know, but I feel like they have to reevaluate what they think of me. Plus, I think it's good to hone their driving skills.)

The restaurant was lit with a bunch of white Christmas lights in the bushes and such, which is always fun. There's an awning over the walk ways leading up to the door, which unfortunately was populated by several large, creepy spiders. Gladly, I didn't notice until we were leaving. Ewwwww.

I had a terrible dining experience once at The Crazy Parot, which is at the North East Marina. We were seated outside on the covered porch area and I noticed the ceiling struts were populated with hundreds of big, fat spiders. Darling Husband convinced me to stay and I tried to relax. That is, until I felt a tickle on my neck and swatted away a huge mother of a spider. I remember screaming and jumping up and smacking at myself, then excusing myself to the ladies room to have hysterics. We were reseated inside and I got a huge, ridiculous, blue mixed drink to calm myself. I will never go back there. In addition to the arachnic attack, I remember the meal itself being a bit "eh." It would have to be pretty amazing to get me to go back and it was merely fine.

But back to Mi Scuzi.

Reservations are pretty much a must, and even so it was busy enough that we needed to wait at the bar for our table to be ready. When we made the reservation, the gentleman I spoke to made a point to ask us not to come early due to their business. He wasn't just whistling dixie. The dining area (formerly livingroom type area) was crammed with tables. I'm sure that's because they want to accommodate as many people as possible, but it seemed challenging for the wait staff.

While we didn't have a ton of elbow room, I also didn't feel super crowded. Perhaps that's because we were against a small partition instead of just out in the open. I did have to be careful not to put my chair too far back, lest I trap the woman seated behind me at her table.

We had a coupon for a bottle of wine with the purchase of two entrees. We chose the red, a very pleasant concha y toro blend. They seem to have these coupons a lot and I recommend them. You're already splurging on the meal; it's nice to have a bottle comped.

To begin, we shared a "grilled pizzette" appetizer with caramelized onions, pears, gorgonzola and mozarella. Oh, yummy yum yum yum! It was crusty, sweet and wonderfully gooey. The gorgonzola provided a fantastic bite and kept it from being too sweet. It was so magnificent, we're planning on making something similar for dinner soon just to get to taste it again.

We also shared a salad, which was HUGE. It's a good thing we shared it, because it was not a little side salad. We chose the fennel, arrugula and citrus salad. The fennel was paper thin and in a wonderfully fluffy mound. It was adorned with ribbons of aged provolone, which I thought was a slightly moist parmasean until I looked up the menu to write this. There were supposed to be black mission figs, but the figs we got were golden and round... which was fantastic, but not a black mission fig unless the fresh looks much, much different from the dried. It was drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette, which was very subtle in flavor but robust in color. The salad also had big slices of orange, which was nice but I feel the execution could have been improved by removing the pith and taking the slices down from 1/2 inch to 1/8th inch. Darling Husband would have preferred the oranges cut into supremes, but we both acknowledge that we're splitting hairs at this point. The salad was refreshing, flavorful and crisp.

For the main course, Darling Husband and I both ordered off the daily special. Unfortunately, they had run out of scallops and so I had to choose another dish. Darling Husband had crusted Chilean sea bass over Parmesan scallion risotto with an anisette cream. I had the cioppino, a traditional Italian pasta dish with various sea foods in a tomato sauce.

Darling Husband's dish was phenomenal. The fish was flaky and had the taste of butter--perhaps butter poached? And yet the outside had a crispy sear to it. Hmmm. The risotto was so decadently rich, I could've cried. There must've been some sort of mascarpone or something in it. It was ridiculously tasty. On top of the fish were shoestrings of zucchini and carrot, just perfect for dragging through the anisette cream. What can we say about the anisette cream? It rocked. I'm at a loss for words.

My cioppino had delicate calamari, not even a little overdone. Perfectly tender. Joining the calamari were huge shrimp, ruffly clams and Sicilian muscles that tasted like the ocean. I ordinarily am not a fan of the thin, almost tomato juice style of sauce. This one, however, changed my mind completely. Much of this probably had to do with the homemade pasta under it. Home made pasta is the sort of thing you think isn't that big of a deal until you have it and realize it really does matter.

It was a fantabulous meal and a wonderful celebration. The very fact that our criticisms were so small is evidence of the level of culinary skill. I don't know who the chef is. The co-owners are Barry Grossman (the one from all the political signs in all the yards) and Rick Scalise. Barry actually seated us and seemed quite the presence in the restaurant, sitting with various diners and sharing their wine, their limoncello or just their company. It seemed their were several tables of regulars. Good for them. We could never afford to be frequent fliers there, but the next big event we need to celebrate, I'm there.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Odd, manly chili

It's a brrrrr cold day, just right for a pot of chili. At the end of a busy week, a crock pot meal is where it's at. Here's what went into the pot:

Cubed beef
Dark chocolate with cherries and cayenne
Bell pepper (softened in a skillet)
Celery (ditto)
Onion (ditto)
Adobo
Tomato paste
Brown sugar
Red wine
Corn meal
Dried peppers

Smells heavenly... had a little nibble and seared off my taste buds from the temperature. Hope it tastes good!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Meatballs, tiny round loaves

I've decided meatballs are tiny, spherical meatloaves. Meat spheres. Hmmm.

I made something like three dozen tonight, in order to help out my friend who is recovering from surgery. I'll keep one bag for me (in the freezer) and deliver them after work tomorrow.

Probably everyone has a recipe, but I've actually never made a meat loaf and have somewhat limited meatball experience. I took a page from my mother's book and used packet of dry onion soup mix, and one from my mother-in-law and used crushed Club crackers. An egg to bind and not much else, and before you know it I'm rolling out meaty golf balls.

I baked them for ease, after deciding on the afore mentioned eureka moment of lilliputian loaf concept. This unfortunately made them flat on the bottom, but I guess that won't matter when they're covered in marinara. I hope.

Having made the meatballs, a separate pasta dish for dinner, as well as prepped crock pot chili tomorrow and made lunches, I'm beat!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Cold day, warm soup

I don't actually like soup very much, but it sounded like just the thing for this blustery day. It also helped me use up some left overs.

Lurking in our freezer were two unloved Smith's Cheddarbest, fantastic sausages left over from a fantastic summer grilling evening. I had taken them down to thaw a couple days ago and hadn't had much of a plan for them.

Also hanging out was the left over potato cauliflower gratin. Ah-ha! I decided to puree the gratin with some milk, hot sauce, salt and pepper (has it been underseasoned this whole time, or was it the puree that made it seem bland?) and call it soup. I browned the sausages in a skillet, cut them into coins and tossed them into the soup. Mmmmmmmmh...

The sausages were a wonderful textural and flavor punctuation to the soup, which was creamy and hearty. I liked particularly the juiciness of the sausage in with a bite of the rest. I felt like this was survival soup. We could eat this after a day of trudging through the snowy forest looking for lost hikers, after reviving ourselves with a brandy. It would stick to ribs, warm the core, fill the belly and cause happy full-tummy sleeps.

As a side note, I've been sleeping much better since the doctor gave me cough syrup with codine in it. Whew! That's potent stuff. Other than strange dreams about roasting tiny lizards on tiny spits, it's incredibly restful.

But back to tonight. Also, in a fit of practicality, I've planned, shopped and prepped a week's worth of meals. Things are labeled and baggied, ready to be sauteed or braised or baked. Ha! I still have meatballs hanging over my head, though. Not literally, of course. A good friend had surgery today and I wanted to bring over some meatballs later in the week. She and her husband are a bit picky, so quiche, lasagna and casserole were all out. I decided to make meatballs and freeze them individually, and bring both gravy and marinara (for the swedish meatball type dish or the italian) to give them variety and choice. I now have all the ingredients, but didn't have time tonight. Cold weather saps my energy. Cold weather and a 14 month old, that is.

I got a bunch of ground beef with the intention of making meatballs for myself, too. I kinda wish I had one of those small, spring loaded ice creams scoops for helping me portion these things out. Meatball uniformity is a problem for me. They start normal but then get bigger and bigger and bigger. Then I overcorrect and make them too small. This doesn't make for even cooking time across the dish. Oh well, I'll just do my best!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Calling steelhead fishermen



Holy cow, this is what you all have been pulling from the waterways around here? Well, why didn't you say so?!

We found this beautiful steelhead trout fillet at Sam's Club and couldn't resist. The color is like salmon. Plus, $6 for a big piece is a really good price. We decided to go for it and I am so glad we did!

I made a kind of mojo in which to marinate the fish. The zest of an orange and its juice as well, sambol olek, fresh parsley, basil and oregano. I added a tiny pinch of salt, too, to round out the flavors. I didn't have much time to marinate--maybe 15 minutes while I prepped the rest of the meal.

Citrus with fish, of course, can make a ceviche. People go on and on about how ceviche isn't raw because the acid in the citrus "cooks" the fish. This makes me crazy. Of course it's still raw, people! Did you apply heat? No! Darling Husband informs me it's a similar chemical process to cooking. However, when people say they're skeeved about eating raw fish, I find it misleading to tell them not to worry because it's cooked, really.
But I digress. The rest of the meal was wild rice (a mix, from a box) and baked acorn squash. I seasoned the squash with cayenne, chilli pepper, moroccan spice and pepper, then crusted brown sugar and topped with a pat of butter.
I fried the fish in some more butter, allowing it to get a nice crust on the one side. I had removed the skin with a fillet knife. Fish skin really, really grosses me out. Fortunately it's a snap to remove.
You make a small cut at the tail end, through the flesh but not the skin. This gives you a handle to hold on to. You place your knife facing away from you, just at the place where the skin meets the flesh and sort of pull the skin/push the knife/gently sweep the blade in arcs. It's quite impressive but really simple to do.
The fish was wonderful, firmly textured, very flavorful and not at all fishy. I was a bit proud of the fresh tastes of the marinade, too, and the nice herbal pop.
Now we must befriend steelhead fishermen to hook us up with more.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Comfortable cabbage

Sometimes some pretty wonderful dishes come together without much thought. We had fennel that we needed to use, but hadn't fully decided on how. We almost did a fennel and orange salad (a classical pairing) but decided we needed a main course instead.

Fennel to me goes well with sausage, as it is often a flavoring in sausage. So first, I browned some sage flavored sausage. Then I removed it from the pan and used the drippings to saute some onion (always a good bet) and the fennel, which Darling Husband sliced on the mandolin.

A note of caution about the mandolin: it is a wonderful tool, but all too easily it lulls you into a false sense of security. Always use the guard!! Pampered Chef actually makes one that you can't use without the guard. Maybe the design people at PC heard about my sister slicing off the tip of her finger making eggplant parm. Perhaps they, like me, have the image of her fingertip laying on the cutting board permanently seared into their cerebral mash. Or, maybe their lawyers just thought it was smart.

Back to the dish. We needed something to bulk up the dish and cut the assertiveness of the fennel, which could get old if overused. In went sliced cabbage. To help it all braise (though it was softening nicely) I added a bit of chicken stock. Meanwhile, I made little radiator style pasta in some more chicken broth, in order to impart as much flavor as possible. Combined with the cabbage/sausage/fennel mixture, the radiators had just the right amount of toothiness, with nooks and crannies galore. Excellent mouth feel. Warm, cozy, flavorful and fall like.

Ah, but I almost forgot about the cauliflower! I did, actually, make my cauliflower and potato gratin, on the previous evening. It was very nice, although my potatoes were a bit toothier than I might have wanted them to be (i.e., I undercooked them). I used a layer of club crackers for a crust, which I quite enjoyed. My mother also got cauliflower and has yet to fully plumb its culinary usefulness, as it's still sitting in her fridge. They were 2/$5 at Wegman's; the only proper course of action is to pick the biggest one so you're getting your money's worth. In this case, each head seemed bigger than the next. The one I picked seemed robust and I was pleased with it. It made a gigantic amount of cheesy veggie fun, so we're eating it for lunches.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Update for the curious

Still haven't made the cauliflour. Did get around to parboiling it, though... Got some sort of lurgy, a malaise, a plague that involves coughing until incontinence threatens and I can't catch my breath.

You're welcome for sharing.

Didn't even eat dinner last night, let alone cook. I had higher hopes for tonight but Baby Girl had other plans. Tomorrow? Hmmm... better cook 'em or freeze 'em! Wish me luck.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Late night dinners

Growing up, dinner was at 7pm and we all ate together. If you were going to be late (for a good reason... like maybe a piano lesson or something) we generally held dinner until we were all there. If my dad got caught up mowing the lawn, dinner would sometimes be very late. When I was little little, I'm sure I got mine earlier, but I just remember how very important it was.

Now, Darling Husband and I always eat dinner together, but Baby Girl often gets hers early. Partially because she needs to be going to bed early and partially because she's not big on table food or, well, letting me cook. (She's very into bananas, yogurt, bread, graham crackers, corn on the cob and those little fruit cups of peaches. She puts up with other things.) Darling Husband doesn't get home until six at best, which really pushes things back. We usually eat after she's in bed.

That being said, lately dinner here is unusually late. Darling Husband is in a play in a neighboring town, about 45 minutes away. This isn't as odd as it seems, as he works in that town and commutes daily. But it does mean that there isn't time for him to come home between work and rehearsal. This is the third night this week where we're not seeing him until after 10pm. Whew! I'm trying to be creative about meals. We had chicken patty parmasean sandwiches one night, meatloaf and mashed potatoes another. Tonight we were to have cauliflower and potato gratin. I haven't made it yet.

Part of the reason is I am sniffy and coughing and tired. Part of the reason is I took Baby Girl to the playground and we both got worn out. Part of the reason is Baby Girl chose tonight for her first real temper tantrum, and it took more out of me than the other parts combined.

I don't know if I'll get around to it. The cauliflower is already prepped, but I need to parboil it along with the potatoes (which aren't prepped). Then I'll make a cheesy bechamel and put it all into a casserole with crumbled club crackers on top. Into the oven it will go.

Ugh, it sounds so good but I am seriously wishing for a magic wand right now. Who knows? It might be lunch tomorrow instead.

Last night, Darling Husband made delicatta squash ravioli in a walnut sage brown butter. From scratch. Oh, it was heavenly! He used wonton wrappers for the ravioli, which makes a nicely light pasta. After roasting the delicatta, he pureed it with garlic (don't know what else) and spooned it onto a wonton. Before the top wonton was sealed on with egg wash, he put a pinch of asiago cheese. He served it with a fresh wine and cheese sausage, which he grilled. Needless to say, we didn't have any leftovers.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Vegan meat sauce

We accidentally made an amazing vegan meat sauce the other day. How does one accidentally make sauce? That's where happy accidents come in. I'd love to say I planned it out, but I actually only meant to make a fresh, summery marinara to serve over angel hair.

I started off with a miropoix, cooked until brown and caramelized and wonderful. I learned this trick from Anne Burrell on her show, Secrets of a Restraunt Chef. She kinda bothers me, but she has good tips, too. (I like her better when she's soux cheffing on Iron Chef). It adds amazing depth to almost anything, in particular tomato sauces. To this we added fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped.

I follow the tried and true canning trick to remove tomato skins. You score an X on the tomato bottom then drop it into boiling water for about 20 or 30 seconds, then plunge into ice water. By the time you get a few into the water, the skins are loose enough to come off with barely any effort. Apparently this works with peaches, too, but I've never tried it.

Anyway, as we were doing all this with the tomatoes, the ones in the pan cooked down a bit further than we wanted them to. We added red wine to deglaze and to add liquid. Long story short, the sauce was almost burgundy dark, incredibly complex and wonderfully rich. It almost seemed unctuous, though there wasn't any meat at all. We threw it a bunch of fresh oregano and basil, and that helped to bring it a bit further towards the fresh. It was more of a fall dish than intended, but it was frankly incredible. :o) Serendipity in the kitchen.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Breakfast Place

Today we went for Sunday breakfast at a new place. Well, it's new to us. I'm not sure how long it's been there, but it seems to be where it's at, a hip and happening joint.

The Breakfast Place is on the East side, just off the Bayfront at 38th and McClelland. It shares a parking lot with Nunzi's. A friend of ours told us about it, but warned us that the line can be out the door at times. They weren't kidding! We waited maybe 5 minutes or so for a table to be cleaned, but just after we got there the line did indeed go out the door. There's no giving your name and sitting outside, either. It's "Please Wait Here to be Seated" and they're not joking.

Who wants breakfast? Well, families do. Older folks do. Drunk people do after the bars close... so The Breakfast Place is open during the week from 5:30am to 1pm, and on the weekend from 11pm until 1pm (2pm on Sundays). I think this is brilliant. A gentleman in line behind us said he plows snow and in the winter he's going to come here when his shift is over to warm up.

Speaking of which, the coffee is really tasty and the wait staff (all women that I saw) are always circling with pots of it. There's a diner counter area and one large seating room. The walls are covered with sports themed pictures, including some local stuff, but not nearly as kitchy as TGI Friday's or Applebee's. It's a bit old fashioned, but very comforting. It's not trying to be trendy or edgy or avant garde or anything. It's just trying to serve good, wholesome food at really good prices.

The menu is pretty straight forward; they have breakfast, obviously. The only non-breakfast items I saw were under the category "Breakfast Munchies" and included greek dogs, greek fries, and six packs of greek dogs or burgers to go. The rest of the menu was omelets, combo platters, side items, and breakfast sandwiches. I was really tempted by the grilled corned beef hash, but went instead for the fritatta. It was a three egg scrambled omelet with sausage, potatoes, onion, peppers, mushrooms, mozzarella and banana pepper rings. With toast. Whew! It was huge! The menu offered a half portion, but I was pretty hungry and decided to go for it. Well, Baby Girl excitedly helped me eat it and we still only made it through half! It was delicious, with very finely crumbled sausage insinuating itself throughout every bite. The eggs were mostly there as a binder, as there was way too much "stuff" to be contained. Banana peppers, an interesting choice, provided a nice, bright, sour note that offset the sweet flavors of the caramelized onions and peppers well.

Darling Husband opted for the Italian French Toast, made with dense Italian bread and served with eggs. He loved how well executed it was, with the chewy crust and moist, custardy center which, nevertheless, was not soggy. I managed to snag a bite before he happily gobbled it all up and I can attest it was darned good french toast.

Baby Girl, I must mention, had french toast sticks. This was the first time we've ordered off the menu for her at a restaurant. She loved them! I snuck a bite and they were pretty good. I think they might even have been homemade, considering the variation in size and shape. It was especially nice that they put a rush on her order so she could happily chow down while we sipped coffee and waited patiently.

And because I am her mother I must take a moment to brag. When our meal was just about finished, an older couple sitting next to us got up to leave. The gentleman made a point of coming by and complimenting us on Baby Girl's behavior, adding that she's one sweet, good little girl we've got there. That's particularly great to hear because we found two molars poking out today and she can't have been feeling too hot. On the plus side, there were lots of people ready to smile at her and wave, so she was pretty occupied.

Everyone was friendly. Most of the waitresses were young and wearing tie dyed shirts with markered on logos of The Breakfast Place, made to look a bit like team shirts for a sport. Was this because football season just kicked off? I don't know. I was impressed by the one girl's star tatoos up the inside of her forearm. Our actual waitress was "of a certain age" and looked just like you'd imagine a career diner waitress to be. She had on a plain t-shirt with the restaurant's name on it. Despite the line literally 6 feet from us, we never once felt rushed or hurried along. The staff was welcoming and accommodating, the food served hot and in a timely fashion.

I whole heartedly recommend trying out this breakfast spot. What's that, you say? You'd rather have a meatball omelet from that other famous after-bar breakfast place? Well, this breakfast spot has a meatball omelet, too.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Posting hiatus

You might think, if I'm not posting, I'm neither cooking nor eating. You'd be wrong. You might think I'm sick or super busy. Nope, not that, either. I'm even making interesting things; I just haven't much felt like blogging.

Sorry, all you loyal readers. I guess I'm in a little slump... blogs are not the place for self pity.

Wait.

Actually, to be more accurate, this blog isn't the place for self pity. So I won't moan on, but instead I will vow to make more of an effort to blog. I enjoy it, you see. And while I haven't gotten many comments in a while, I believe others enjoy it, too.

Tonight, we made buffalo shrimp salad. We had buffalo flavored shrimp for the first time at Joe Root's Grill, and realized instantly that this was brilliant. Why everyone doesn't do this is beyond us, except (like us) it probably just hadn't occurred to them. We make a home made version by buying popcorn shrimp frozen, baking them, then tossing in wing sauce. Tonight, we also made shoe string fries and put both of those over a bed of baby romaine mix lettuces. We studded the salad with yellow pear tomatoes from our garden and crisp slices of local cucumber. Shredded cheddar and big croutons rounded out the dish. Darling Husband squeezed blue cheese dressing on his; I had ranch. A nice, refreshing dish after a long but fun day.

Did you know they had a petting zoo at Frontier Park today? Baby Girl got a pony ride and pet a pig.